PRETORIA – On Sunday night, Mamelodi Sundowns continued to do what they have been doing for the past two years – fly South Africa’s flag high in the Caf Champions League.
The Brazilians advanced to the group stage of the continent’s premier club competition for a third successive year – something that no South African team has done before – by beating Rayon Sports 2-0 at Loftus Versfeld.
Their progress ensured that the country has two teams remaining in continental football as their neighbours SuperSport United came from behind to book a place in the Caf Confederation Cup playoffs on Friday.
While the Tshwane giants stood tall, Bidvest Wits and Cape Town City crashed out on home soil.
Sundowns had to dig deep to get this win in difficult playing conditions on Sunday, as a heavy downpour hit just before the players finished warming up.
By the time they returned for the start of the game, the pitch resembled a swimming pool in some parts, with a number of waterlogged areas.
The visitors didn’t mind – in fact they welcomed the rain and liked how the pitch looked, coming from a country that’s in its rainy season.
The Rwandan side started the better of the two, troubling the Brazilians with their pace.
Denis Onyango bailed out Sundowns by producing two brilliant saves that would have put the hosts under heavy pressure, especially since they returned from Rwanda with a goalless draw in the first leg.
The Brazilians woke up from that scare and dominated the match.
Themba Zwane was performing miracles that made walking on water look trivial. Zwane hypnotised Rayon defenders and glided on the water.
He did everything so effortlessly that it looked like where he walked, the rain didn’t touch.
“Mshishi” weaved his magic to create a golden opportunity for Gaston Sirino, who should have opened his Sundowns account, but the Uruguayan missed a sitter.
It took centreback Wayne Arendse to give Sundowns the lead as he cleverly directed Percy Tau’s corner kick to allow the hosts breathing space and an opportunity to play with more freedom.
That freedom coincided with the pitch drying up, and Sundowns were themselves, playing an enterprising brand of football that made Rayon chase shadows.
The Rwandans looked to hit Sundowns on the counter through their speed, but the Brazilians soaked up the pressure and retaliated with force.
Tau led the attack with his clever runs and pace, but he didn’t get anything for his efforts, with Rayon goalkeeper Eric Ndayishimiye looking like he saved his best for Tau.
Sibusiso Vilakazi popped up and stretched the lead with a header from Sirino’s shot that hit the woodwork.
Altitude caught up with Rayon, who arrived in the country on Saturday and held just one training session, despite this being a historic match for them as they looked to become the first Rwandan club to reach the group stage of a continental competition.
Sundowns will find out who they will face in the group stage on Wednesday in the draw that will be conducted in Cairo for the matches that will be played from May 4-6.
By that time, Sundowns should know whether they will add a eighth league title in the PSL era or not, as only one round of matches will be remaining.
Their passage to the group stage will inspire Sundowns to stretch their lead in the Absa Premiership, as they are now just a point ahead of second-placed Orlando Pirates with a game in hand.